First, a confession: I never liked Glee. I didn’t dislike Amber Riley in it (and I loathed a couple of her co-stars), but when she was announced to star in a (long-overdue) London production of Dreamgirls, I was far more interested in seeing the show than in seeing her in it. I’d have been perfectly happy to go on a Monday night, when Ms. Riley is not scheduled to perform. I wouldn’t have been at all bothered if one of the alternates had been on. Seeing the clip of her singing on the Olivier Awards did not change my mind, and neither did reviewing the production’s cast album. In both cases, I thought her singing was terrific, but there wasn’t anything that convinced me this was one of those drop-everything-and-book-a-ticket must-see performances.
As it turns out, though, I didn’t see the show on a Monday. Ms. Riley was on, and I was completely wrong about her. Two-thirds of the way through And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I found myself doing something I don’t remember doing in a very long time: applauding a performance in the middle of a song. I knew she had a great voice, but the blazing intensity she brought to that moment is not something I expected from her – and she was even more remarkable in the second act. I found myself applauding in the middle of I Am Changing and Listen as well, and she deserved it. I’m sure her alternates are great, but Ms. Riley is delivering a genuine star performance, and I’m (to my surprise) very glad I got to see it.
I’m glad I finally got to see the show itself, too. Dreamgirls was a reasonably substantial hit on Broadway in 1981, but for some reason it’s taken 35 years for it to be produced in London. The composer’s hilariously awful Siamese twin musical Side Show, which has flopped on Broadway twice (I saw the first version) and which, in a song called I Will Never Leave You, contains possibly the stupidest lyrics ever performed on the musical stage, arrived in London (slightly) before Dreamgirls, albeit in a fringe production rather than in the West End. A London production of Dreamgirls has been an occasional feature of the theatrical rumour mill for as long as I’ve been paying attention, to the point where it’s actually slightly surprising to see that the show is up and running.
And not only is it up and running, it’s up and running in a very strong production indeed. Casey Nicholaw‘s direction and choreography pays careful homage to Michael Bennett‘s original Broadway staging – no I didn’t see it, but there’s enough footage out there and enough has been written about it that we all know how it worked – without ever directly reproducing it. It’s slick, fast-paced, and (occasionally literally) dazzling; as in Bennett’s staging, the main element of the set consists of four sliding, revolving columns of spotlights, and the show’s action unfolds in constant, fluid motion. There are no blackouts between scenes, and relatively few pauses for applause (which is one reason we all found ourselves applauding Amber Riley two-thirds of the way through her first big number). A couple of big performance set-pieces aside, Tim Hatley’s set includes relatively little scenery – no walls, no rooms, just minimal furniture, with changes in location suggested by those constantly-moving light towers, Gregg Barnes’s spectacular costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s endlessly inventive lighting, and a lot of wigs. Dreamgirls evokes (and is set during) a period in which pop music aspired to glamour rather than grunge; there may be less to the physical production than meets the eye, in terms of the number of elements that make up the set, but the show looks gorgeous.
It sounds gorgeous too, but then it has to. Dreamgirls is the story of a black girl-group called the Dreamettes (later just the Dreams) from Chicago, their ascent to national fame, and the rift that opens up when the group’s original lead singer is fired just as they’re on the cusp of stardom. The parallels with The Supremes are obvious – Effie White, the lead singer who gets fired and has to learn to strike out on her own, is basically Florence Ballard, if Florence Ballard didn’t die halfway through the story’s second act. Deena Jones, the prettier, lighter-voiced, thinner backing singer who is promoted to lead in order to project a more glamorous image, is pretty much Diana Ross, right down to wanting (in the second act) to disband the group so that she can go and star in a film. So far, so obvious, but what makes the show so fascinating is the way Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen‘s brilliant score takes you on a guided tour of black American popular music of the 60s and 70s, along the way carefully showing how musical styles that were originally dismissed as “race music” had to be gradually adjusted/sanded-down/whitened in order to receive mainstream acceptance. On one level, this is simply another gotta-make-it-in-showbiz backstage musical, but there’s considerable subtext in the music, in terms of the way in which it shows how black performers (and by extension black people in general) had (and still have) to conform to the expectations of their white peers in order to “fit in”. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing, and the fact that Krieger and Eyen accomplish this via a parade of electrifying individual songs makes their achievement here all the more remarkable. There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here: Move (You’re Stepping On My Heart), Cadillac Car, Steppin’ to the Bad Side, Heavy, And I Am Telling You…, I Am Changing, Ain’t No Party, One Night Only, Listen, and the title song are all thrilling, distinguished, distinctive musical numbers of a kind that certain more recent “hit musicals” – including some that have played at the Savoy – would kill to match even once. This is one of the great Broadway scores of the late Twentieth century, and the band and cast here more than do it justice.
Amber Riley’s Effie White is, as I already said, a sensational star performance; she manages to nail every one of her bg moments without ever calling to mind Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, the originators of the role on (respectively) stage and film, and she’s more than worth whatever they’re paying her. Don’t dwell too much on the moment in the first act when Liisi LaFontaine’s just-about-perfect Deena Jones says she can’t sing like Effie – she certainly can, and when she and Ms. Riley finally face off in a belt-your-tonsils-out duet late in the second act – Listen, dragged in from the film with new lyrics by Willie Reale – they practically blow the roof off the theatre. As third member of the group Lorrell Robinson (the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, more or less) Asmeret Ghebremichael offers a blazing Ain’t No Party. These women all have incredible, powerhouse voices, but they blend beautifully when they sing as a group as well, and that’s not always as easy to achieve as you’d think. The men, perhaps, are less individually distinctive, but their performances are all impeccable, as is Nick Finlow’s musical direction. It’s hard to imagine a production of the show that sounds better than this one.
Criticisms… really, not many. I’d held off booking a ticket because prices in the West End seem to be on a sharply upward trajectory, to the point where the seat that cost me £49 for Gypsy in the same theatre two years ago is on sale at £72.50 for this, which (to put it nicely) is not a price rise that can be attributed to inflation – but actually, as it turns out, there are some bargains elsewhere in the theatre if you do a bit of research and know where to look, and they aren’t all in the upper circle. The programme is another matter: yes, it’s glossy, contains some nice production photos and three pages of costume sketches, and the articles in it, for once, are not written by a moron, but it costs £8.00, and that’s a blatant cash-grab. Now, granted, I fell for it – I bought one, and I don’t particularly regret it – but £8.00 is just too much money. And while this production is glorious, the cast recording is disappointing for reasons that have nothing to do with the material or the performers. The poster art is a little bit naff, but that’s par for the course in the West End these days.
The show itself, though, really is as good as its reputation, and this production does it proud. From the insistent cowbell at the top of the show to the final note of the reprise of the title song at the very end, this Dreamgirls grabs your attention and never lets go. It’s a real theatrical thrill-ride – and the thrills, for once, come via voices rather than hydraulics. It’s brash and loud, sure, but it’s packed with sensational songs and wonderful performances, and – don’t faint – the show’s book and lyrics never once insult your intelligence, which unfortunately is becoming an increasingly unusual quality in big commercial musicals. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to; this is just about as good as the West End gets.